“Amber Ways of Gain”
In Anatomy of Criticism, literary critic Northrop Frye argues that the conflict between civilization and nature lies at the center of the Shakespearean comedy. Youngsters must enter what Frye calls the “green world” in order to work out their disconnects from adult society before returning to take over political power from the retiring elders.
For example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1596), teenagers enter the forest and engage with magical fairies to sort out their gender and sexual identity before returning to marriage in Athens. Shakespeare’s play has served as the source for many films, ranging from Peter Brooks’ 1968 production, influenced by the flower power movement of the late 1960s, through to Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982), which grapples with the onset of modernity.
Frye’s concept of the green world illuminates director John Hamburg’s Why Him?, a new Hollywood romantic comedy in ways that suggest the film is far more interesting than it at first seems. The film concerns the love affair of Stanford undergraduate Stephanie (Zoey Deutsch) and Silicon Valley billionaire, Laird Mayhew (James Franco), much to the consternation of Stephanie’s father, Grand Rapids, Michigan businessman, Ned Fleming (Bryan Cranston).
The film begins with a party celebrating Ned’s birthday, but a bittersweet one, as his printing business is slowing being strangled by the dominance of e-commerce. The opening of the film is bathed in the glaring white snow of a northern Midwest winter. As in Shakespeare’s plays, the world of adults is entombed in social ice.
When Ned learns of his daughter’s romance with the Internet tycoon in mid-December, he and his wife, Barb (Megan Mullaly) hop on a plane to San Jose. Upon landing, the color design of the film changes radically, now bathed in the burnt-out grass of desiccated California. Given their coupling with Laird’s spending excess, let’s call these beautiful images the film’s celebration of “amber ways of gain.” However, when the family arrives at Laird’s compound, they discover Frye’s green world. Flush with capital, Laird has the magical ability to transform lifeless Silicon Valley into a lush world of green grass, and free-range animals.
Like the realm of the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, something is not quite right in this green world. Laird’s house is filled with absurd James Franco paintings (such as “Humping Capybaras”) representing animals of all sorts fornicating. The tycoon’s company is built upon similar anthropomorphic distortions of nature: video gamers must help gorillas surf, statues of whom guard the Silicon Valley green world with machine guns.
The climax of the film occurs when Ned confronts Laird as a terrible choice for his daughter, punching the libidinal billionaire in the face. To escape Ned’s wrath, Laird uses his parkour training to climb atop his mansion’s central sculpture, a moose entombed in a glass case filled with urine. The glass shatters, bathing everyone in the family in yellow urea. Let’s call this the return of the repressed of California amber, a transformation that propels the film into its third act, out of the green world and back to the snow.
Stephanie is horrified, banishing her father back to Michigan. However, desperate for familial harmony, Laird flies Stephanie to her parents’ house in his helicopter. There, amidst the snow-covered streets, he reunites the family. Stephanie declines Laird’s marriage proposal and agrees to continue her education; in exchange, Ned accepts his daughter’s romantic relationship with his new found bromantic partner.
The ending highlights the remarkable transformations of the Shakespearean comedy. No longer does the elder generation sit on the sidelines, only to appear at the beginning of Act I and the end of Act V. Instead, Ned undergoes a parallel transformation to his daughter, enraptured by the magic of Laird’ green world, a realm of the future in which high technology transforms basic human function. Laird helps Ned rescue his failing printing company by retrofitting his factory to make smart toilets. The film’s magical Puck, Laird Mayhew escapes his artificial green world, finding in the snowy Midwest the family he never had. Why Him? I think because the film beautifully demonstrates the power of Shakespearean comedy in the contemporary Hollywood romantic comedy.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000 .